Dark allegations arise amid probe of nun's slaying

2/20/2005
BY MICHAEL D. SALLAH AND MITCH WEISS
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

For Toledo police, it was a rare assignment: Search an abandoned house on the edge of a cornfield in western Lucas County where people reportedly took part in ritual abuse ceremonies.

The Rev. Gerald Robinson was charged last year in the 1980 killing of Sister Margaret Ann Pahl.
The Rev. Gerald Robinson was charged last year in the 1980 killing of Sister Margaret Ann Pahl.

The detectives combed the bedrooms, kitchen, and even the dark basement for evidence of cult gatherings.

The search of the decrepit, wood structure last year was a sign the investigation of the Rev. Gerald Robinson was moving beyond a murder case.

No longer was the probe focusing solely on the man accused of killing Sister Margaret Ann Pahl, but was expanding into a new direction: accusations that children were molested and raped by priests in ritual services.

For the past year, police have embarked on one of the most unusual investigations in the department's history, spurred by leads emerging after the priest's arrest in April for the killing in the Mercy Hospital chapel more than 24 years ago.

They have looked for evidence in church attics and basements and have consulted with religious experts on subversive groups and church history. They have even interviewed the founder of a secret fraternity whose members dressed in nuns' clothing.

"The police are going into areas they've never gone before," said David Davidson, one of the first police officers to respond to the slaying in 1980. "They don't have a choice."

The investigation started with the details of the crime scene: an aging nun found strangled and repeatedly stabbed in the sacristy of the hospital chapel, her body posed to look like she was sexually assaulted.

But now, deeper issues have surfaced over accusations of sexual abuse of children in churches and schools by priests and lay members beginning in the late 1960s.

A hallway to the Mercy Hospital chapel, the 1980 crime scene, was taped off shortly after Father Robinson's arrest in April.
A hallway to the Mercy Hospital chapel, the 1980 crime scene, was taped off shortly after Father Robinson's arrest in April.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers refuse to answer questions about the investigation, citing a judge's gag order.

The priest's trial is set for Oct. 17 in Lucas County Common Pleas Court in what's expected to be one of the most watched trials in local history. The 66-year-old cleric has pleaded not guilty, with supporters and relatives pledging their homes to help post a $400,000 bond.

An investigation by The Blade based on hundreds of police and diocese records, as well as interviews, shows that prosecutors are still examining details of the slaying - including a pattern of stab wounds resembling a cross - while interviewing people about the abuse allegations in an expanded probe.

Investigators have talked to numerous priests and former students at local Catholic grade schools to determine if they knew anything about children being molested in bizarre ceremonies involving a small ring of clerics, according to several people interviewed by police.

Four women told detectives about being abused between the late 1960s and 1986 during cult-like ceremonies involving altars and men dressed in robes, the accusers told The Blade. "I've had nightmares about this since I was a child," said one woman, who asked not to be named. "I didn't think anyone would believe me."

The reopening of the Sister Pahl homicide investigation didn't start with DNA findings or even a tip. It began with a secret hearing in the downtown headquarters of the Toledo Catholic diocese unrelated to the nun's death.

A 41-year-old woman appeared before a church review board in June, 2003, with a simple request: She wanted the diocese to pay for more than $50,000 in counseling costs she incurred as an alleged victim of clerical sex abuse.

But her story wasn't like dozens of others exploding in the diocese over the last decade. She said she had been a victim of ritualistic sexual abuse by a group of priests.

She claimed they gathered in church basements and rectories in "cult-like ceremonies" where children were molested and ordered to watch other youngsters being abused. She named four clerics, including Chet Warren, a former Oblates of St. Francis de Sales priest ousted from his order in 1993 after five other women accused him of sexual misconduct.

She claimed Father Warren had orchestrated her repeated abuse, including arranging one encounter with the man now facing murder charges: Father Robinson.

The diocese hired two retired police officers, John Connors, 65, and Lawrence Knannlein, 63, to look into the woman's accusations in an unprecedented church investigation. Over the course of nine months, they interviewed more than 45 people, including priests, nuns, and lay members.

They spent more than 17 hours with the woman, who described her allegations in detail, claiming the sexual assaults began during her preschool years in the 1960s, usually at night with altars, candles, and chanting.

Her most persistent abuser, she said, was Father Warren, a family friend who was counseling her mother for depression. Mr. Warren did not respond to requests for an interview, and his lawyer, Martin Mohler, declined to comment.

The accuser said her only sexual encounter with Father Robinson took place when she was 14 in a room near the chapel of St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center but without any of the rituals that occurred in other sessions.

The priest's lawyer, Alan Konop, said Father Robinson would not comment on the allegation.

Mr. Connors said he initially was stunned by the accusations. "I had conducted a lot of different investigations for the diocese going back a lot of years, but this was the first time I had ever heard these kinds of stories," he recalled.

At the diocese headquarters, the review board debated what to do with the case in what became a growing controversy in the church. The review panel was created to evaluate abuse claims and make recommendations to the bishop.

One board member, psychologist Robert Cooley, argued the woman's story should be reported immediately to police. But church lawyer Thomas Pletz wrote a letter to diocese case manager Frank DiLallo on June 12, 2003, saying board members were not required to do so. After further debate, Mr. Pletz wrote a letter on June 27 to Frank Link, chairman of the review board, saying the woman's allegations had been forwarded to the Lucas County prosecutor's office.

For the next six months, the case languished, but behind the scene, a local clerical abuse support group pressed the Ohio attorney general's office to look into the complaint. State agents in turn urged the Lucas County prosecutor's office to investigate.

By the end of the year, Prosecutor Julia Bates agreed, assigning investigators to meet with the woman. While evaluating her complaint, they recognized one name - Father Robinson - from an unsolved slaying in 1980.

Then the chaplain at Mercy Hospital, Father Robinson was questioned several times in 1980 about Sister Pahl's death. But police said at the time no one was charged because there wasn't enough evidence.

In early 2004, prosecutors began to take another look at one of Toledo's most high-profile unsolved homicides.

They hired experts to conduct a battery of scientific tests on the original evidence, including a letter opener that police believe was used in the slaying of Sister Pahl. The shiny, long opener with a medallion at the top had been in police storage since it was taken from Father Robinson's room in the hospital after the killing.

Police went to experts to study the blood patterns on an altar cloth and other objects from the crime scene. They also listened to the priest's taped interviews with detectives in 1980.

On April 23, 2004, prosecutors said there was enough evidence to charge Father Robinson with murder, and shortly after taking him into custody, investigators added one more detail in interviews with reporters: The death appeared to be a "ritual" slaying.

The disclosure triggered a media frenzy, with reporters descending on Toledo from the national networks and tabloids.

But even after the arrest, police weren't finished. There were still unresolved questions surrounding the sex-abuse accusations against other clerics. The more pressing question: Was Father Robinson involved?

Police launched their own investigation into the woman's dark accusations. They looked at a remote, abandoned home on Raab Road in western Lucas County that matched the description of a house where the woman said she was raped in group sessions in the late 1970s but were unable to find any evidence the house was used for ritual sex sessions.

Detectives tracked down another woman who said she was ritually abused by the same clerics in similar scenarios, though the accusers did not know each other.

Teresa Bombrys, 43, said she was taken to a farm house in the late 1960s by Chet Warren and forced to watch "these rituals."

She told The Blade in a recent interview: "I know it's hard for people to really understand this, but it was real. It happened, and I've lived with it for most of my life." She said she believed her abusers wanted to scare her and other children and to create an atmosphere so bizarre no one would believe them.

She filed a lawsuit against Mr. Warren, the diocese, and the Oblates in April, 2002, in Lucas County Common Pleas Court, alleging years of sexual abuse by the priest. The monetary portion of the case has been settled for an undisclosed sum, but other terms are being negotiated, said her lawyer, Catherine Hoolahan.

Another woman, 52, told police she was taken to a house in the 1960s where ritual sex ceremonies took place. And a fourth woman, 24, told a detective she was a young grade-school student when she was carried into a local church at night by several adults who abused her during a ceremony by an altar. She said she could not identify the men.

Both women asked not to be identified.

Ms. Hoolahan, who has filed more than a dozen complaints against the diocese in sex-abuse cases, said police should continue focusing on the ritual-abuse accusations. "When you have that many people offering corroborating statements, it makes you wonder," she said. "You have to take this seriously."

After Father Robinson was arrested in April, the church's own investigation was winding down.

The two diocese investigators wrote separate reports - totaling 39 pages - and met with the diocese case manager in May in what turned into a heated exchange between the two investigators.

Mr. Connors found the woman who appeared before the review board credible while Mr. Knannlein doubted her story. "There was a lot of shouting back and forth," Mr. Connors recalled. "I just felt that if we had kept going, we could have corroborated at least some of her story."

Despite their differences, they agreed on one thing: The investigation should continue.

A key interview was set up with Mr. Warren, now 77, at the diocese headquarters to allow him to respond to the allegations. But on the day the interview was to take place, church officials canceled the session, Mr. Connors said. "I showed up at the diocese, but I was told it was over. There would be no interview," he said. "They were shutting it down."

Church records obtained by The Blade show the diocese closed the case in May when the woman at the center of the ritual abuse case rejected a request to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.

In an interview with The Blade, in which she asked not to be identified, the woman said she was upset at the church's request. "My question back to them was why don't they tell the priest who abused me to undergo psychiatric tests," she said. "Do hospitals ask rape victims to have psychiatric evaluations?"

She said she allowed church investigators to talk to her therapist and family members. "I tried to comply with everything they asked."

Mr. Pletz, the lawyer for the diocese, said recently he would not comment on the church investigation. Mr. Knannlein, who pressed for the woman to be evaluated, declined to comment. But in his report to the diocese, he concluded that "much more research and investigation should be done before people are accused of these crimes."

While the woman's refusal to be tested prompted the diocese to drop its case, police pressed ahead with their own probe.

They looked into allegations that some of the ritual abuse took place in local churches, including the basement of Holy Trinity Church in Richfield Center, Ohio, and an Oblate residence on Parkwood Avenue, according to church records and interviews. They did not find any evidence to support the claims.

They spent several days last month trying to determine if there were any connections between the women's allegations and a loose-knit group of church lay members who gathered on church properties while dressed in nuns' clothes.

Police interviewed Jerry Mazuchowski, 53, a church lay minister and retired Toledo public school teacher who founded the group known as Sisters of Assumed Mary, or SAM. He said he told police detectives that his group did not break church laws.

"We did nun drag," he told The Blade. "We gave each other nuns' names. It was nothing but absolute fun. Camp. Foolishness."

He said a dispute broke out between him and Father Paul Kwiatkowski, the former pastor of St. Hedwig's Church, over allegations the group was responsible for vandalizing the church and holding secret ceremonies - events that led to the pastor to hold a prayer service to cleanse the church. But Mr. Mazuchowski denied vandalizing the church, pointing out he was cleared of any wrongdoing in a special diocese Court of Equity hearing in 1993.

Mr. Mazuchowski said he told police detectives that Father Robinson was not a member of SAM, describing the priest instead as a longtime friend.

Since the priest's arrest, Mr. Mazuchowski has appeared on a local news station to proclaim Father Robinson's innocence and penned an article for a neighborhood newsletter saying the priest is innocent until proven guilty.

Prosecutors say they will continue to investigate the ritual abuse allegations, but trying to substantiate claims from three decades ago is difficult. While some of the stories were similar, none of the accusers could pinpoint precise times of their alleged abuse. While they described similar locations, they were unable to recall being in the same room.

Three of the four women interviewed by police said they did not have vivid memories of their experiences until adulthood.

Prosecutors said police have not linked any ritual abuse to Father Robinson. So far, the murder case revolves around the physical evidence from the crime scene and anything new they discover about the priest.

At times, getting details about Father Robinson has been difficult. When police asked the diocese for personnel and other records about the priest, they received three pages showing his church assignments, prosecutors said.

On Sept. 15, prosecutors walked into diocese headquarters with a search warrant - one of the few ever served on a U.S. diocese in a murder case, according to legal experts.

During the search, prosecutors were handed more than 100 documents bearing Father Robinson's name but declined to elaborate on the contents. Two days later, they returned with another warrant - this time demanding access to the office of Father Michael Billian, the Episcopal vicar and the diocese's top administrator.

Though they didn't find more documents about Father Robinson, they found a file stamped "privileged" containing cases of child abuse, Mr. Pletz said.

Prosecutors said they didn't find any references to ritual abuse but declined to say what was in the records or why they did not seize them.

One leading sex-abuse expert questioned why investigators did not take the records. "That surprises me that they didn't go back with another warrant," said Jeff Anderson, a Minneapolis attorney who has filed more than 400 clerical abuse lawsuits around the country.

Mr. Pletz, the diocese lawyer, said the church has tried to cooperate with police and prosecutors, but he wouldn't comment on the need for search warrants. Father Billian did not return repeated phone calls from The Blade. Bishop Leonard Blair would not comment for the story, a spokesman said.

With the murder trial in nine months, police are trying to find out more about Father Robinson, a Toledo native ordained in 1964.

He was the hospital chaplain for six years and worked with Sister Pahl in preparing the chapel, though at times, they didn't get along, according to police. "It seemed like so many people were telling us the same thing: They didn't like each other," recalled Mr. Davidson, the police officer who interviewed numerous hospital employees about the slaying.

The priest's supporters say they're standing by the cleric, who has been temporarily removed from ministry while his case is in court. "Because they didn't get along doesn't mean he was a murderer," said Father Kwiatkowski, who has known the defendant 35 years. "It's just not in him. I don't see him as violent at all."

In an interview with police two weeks ago, Father Kwiatkowski said he defended the priest, but that wasn't the reason for their visit. He said the police spent most of the interview asking him about SAM, ritual abuse, and old crosses. "They asked me what kind of template would be used to make patterns on stab wounds," he said. "I said I didn't know."

Contact Michael D. Sallah at: msallah@theblade.com or 419-724-6272.